US Publishing Braces for an Earthquake in 2013

Under an obscure copyright law intended to protect artists, artists can reclaim their older works from publishers starting in 2013.

According to PaidContent, section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act allows authors to nullify publishing contracts after 35 years comes into effect next year. That means that the creator of any work (including music) produced prior to 1978 is potentially eligible, with newer works becoming eligible every year going forward.

Of course publishing companies aren't going to surrender easily :
"“This will provide grist for the litigation mill,” said Bart, comparing the law to the 1999 safe harbor rules that tied courts in knots for a decade.

For musicians, the reversion rights issue has spilled into court already. Since last year, studios have been claiming that the lead singer of the Village People is ineligible to reclaim copyright. The studios argued the music is an ineligible “work for hire” and that the whole band — as joint authors — must together trigger the termination. The arguments have failed so far as the first judge to hear them sided with the singer in May.

While the “right to hire” issue may not affect most book authors (who are typically not employees), it may affect some of the country’s most famous writers."

However, it is unclear how much money a beleaguered publishing industry will be willing to put into litigation or how successful they will be.

Potentially this means that, especially for works that are not considered financially significant by publishers, a great deal more content may be available online starting next years. Authors might, for example, pull out of print works from publishers and make them available as low cost e-books, or even give them away. It is, as the internet generally has been, good news for artists and audiences and bad news for everyone in between. Unless, as has always been the case, the middle men succeed in litigating a new lifeline for themselves.

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